feature image photo by Maryna Terletska via Getty Images
There are days when I just need some good garbage. Look, I love prestige dramas, arthouse independent movies, meticulously researched journalism, and literary fiction as much as the next writer. I adore media that challenges or surprises me. But sometimes, especially in these last few shit-burger years, I find myself really craving the entertainment equivalent of a handful of fast food fries. It’s a hunger that’s best filled with reality dating shows, sexy novels, slutty dance music, and sloppy teen dramas. When I just couldn’t bring myself to watch Station Eleven or to finally make a dent in my ever-growing TBR pile, I turned to Love is Blind or a marathon relisten of the Normal Gossip podcast. My addiction to absorbing as much gossip, drama, and mess as possible is maybe my biggest personal vice and my number one way to drown out our uniquely terrible moment.
When I say I want good garbage, I’m asking for something that is melodramatic, sexy, or scandalous in ways that don’t ask me to engage more than the simplest parts of my brain. I’m not looking for comfort media that makes me feel soothed and wrapped up in a warm, sentimental blanket. The best trash media feels like jaw-dropping, “shut-the-fuck-upwp_postssecond hand gossip your half-drunk friend offers up about some couple you’ve never met and likely never will.
The problem I keep bumping into is that the best media junk food is overwhelmingly cis. Hell, seemingly all of the shitty junk is cis. Finding quality trans trash is surprisingly hard, and it really shouldn’t be. My trans friends, and I say this lovingly, are some of the messiest people I know. When I hang out with other trans girls, the topic of conversation inevitably spills over into our own personal stories of ill-advised hookups, nights out filled with bad decisions, comedically disastrous early attempts at exiting the closet, or just gossip we’ve picked up about some other equally messy t-girl. Sure, we also chat about art we like and, if we’re up to it, the anti-trans panic sweeping the country, but more often than not we spend our time sharing trashy (often self-mocking) stories.
But for whatever reason, there just isn’t much good trash out there for trans people. Sure, there are plenty of trans novels like Nevada or Detransition, Baby that tell the stories of aimless, disaster trans women, but I could never in good conscience call these books trash. They’re too thematically rich and formally inventive to illicit the sort of head-empty thrill I look for in my junk entertainment. Especially with the fact that horny novels (even queer horny novels) seem to be the top-selling works of fiction at the moment, I kept hoping there would be something for us messy transes to sink our lecherous teeth into.
I thought I had found my trans trash when I picked up the regency romance novel A Lady for a Duke. I’m normally not a bodice ripper girl, but I’d loved the raunchy sexual drama of Bridgerton (especially when it was paired with string covers of Taylor Swift songs), and I figured maybe the fact that the protagonist for Alexis Hall’s book was a trans woman would win me over. And for a while, it was working on me. My heart fluttered at the first kisses and tender hand holdings. (By the way, that heart flutter is really only something I’ve felt myself in the last few months after having been on hormones for about four years? Bodies are wild.) I bought into the will they/won’t they of this Victorian trans lady and the moody Duke her childhood best friend had grown into. I couldn’t wait until the two finally fucked. A Lady for a Duke made me read well over 300 pages before any steaminess happened. It was a buildup I tolerated, because I had convinced myself I would be rewarded with some sex that was at least as lengthy as the teasing that came before, even as that seemed less and less mathematically possible. But what I got was a single hookup that was so stilted, awkward, and outside the experience of most trans women I knew that it ended up ruining the entire thrill. While Alexis Hall had done a serviceable job at writing a trans character up until that moment, it was in the messy intimacies that the illusion shattered, and I could no longer ignore the fact that this was a book written by a man who mostly wrote romance fiction for cis women.
I left A Lady for a Duke feeling so deflated that I found myself looking up the bylines for many of the raving reviews I’d seen logged for the novel online. Most praised the novel for its supposedly great representation and romance, but I struggled to find any published by a trans femme critic. It was hard not to read the praise as a bunch of backpatting cisqueers applauding themselves for reading a decidedly okay love story about a trans woman. And while I do know that there are horny novels written by and about trans women, none of these have received remotely the same level of public praise, attention, or marketing that A Lady for a Duke and its many, many cisgender siblings do.
The TV landscape doesn’t fare much better. Despite the massive landscape of reality TV, you’d be hard-pressed to find a trans feminine person on any series that wasn’t about drag. And that’s not to say that there shouldn’t be shows about trans drag queens, but when do we get to be included in the seemingly hundreds of real housewives and dating shows? Yes, I am absolutely excited to binge The Ultimatum: Queer Love with my girlfriend, but I did spend a good hour going frame by frame through that recently released trailer looking for any visible trans femmes without success. The cast has been announced, and while the show’s description notes that it features nonbinary people, it’s unclear if anyone is trans feminine. I’m not getting my hopes up, especially considering the first bit of marketing for the series literally opens up with a Harry Potter reference. Given that reality television spent much of the 90s and aughts exploiting trans women for shock value and cheap thrills, reclaiming this genre feels oddly necessary and not just for the drama hungry souls like me.
I’m equally starved for scripted trans trash. While The L Word: Generation Q included trans femme actresses in its cast, I was and continue to be put off by its commitment to creating a cis unless otherwise stated status quo for its characters. Yes, in some ways I understand the importance of a trans actress playing a cis woman, but at the end of the day, its most empowering first and foremost for the performer. It does little for us at home, especially viewers like myself who want to see trans femme stories incorporated into the narrative. I was a bit more encouraged to see there was a trans woman as one of the principal cast members of Showtime’s Queer as Folk reboot, but I dropped the show after the first episode closed with a mass shooting at a queer nightclub. Look, I’m not violence-averse in my escapism. I’m down for some murderous love triangles or revenge killings, but I’m not necessarily looking for hate crimes to serve as a major plot point in my junk TV. Even when Euphoria decided in its second season to make every plot point that wasn’t about Rue’s drug addiction a glitzy, high budget soap opera, Jules, Hunter Schafer’s trans sex worker who was at one point billed as one of the show’s leads, barely appeared outside of being a prop for the creation of drama for the series’ cis cast.
Oddly enough, the most I’ve enjoyed the depiction of a trans femme character in a show like this was Josie Totah’s Lexi on the reboot of Saved by the Bell. While you could debate the merits of a Gen Z reboot of a classic 90s teen sitcom for hours (I personally found it surprisingly funny), I hope you can see why Totah getting to play an explicitly trans queen bee, mean girl archetype is so great. Lexi gets pissy zingers, has romance story arcs, and gets roped into the same stupid shenanigans that the rest of the ensemble does. In terms of head empty comedy escapism, Lexi inhabits a space I don’t get to see many other trans femme characters do: be undeniably trans and entertaining. Much of this is likely due in no small part to Totah serving as a producer for the series’ regrettably short runtime. But no matter how refreshing a character I find Lexi to be, she’s still a supporting player on a streaming only nostalgia reboot comedy series aimed at teens. I wouldn’t blame many trans viewers for deciding to sit this one out.
At my most cynical and frustrated, I read this overall lack of trash aimed at trans femme people as profoundly trans misogynistic and gender essentialist. Cis women, especially cis het women, are pitched a veritable feast of delightful garbage media from their preteens all the way through adulthood. I mean, the CW and Freeform practically created an entire subgenre of steamy, back-stabby, pulpy teen dramas. And sure, there’s a lot to unpack about the fact that these are the kind of stories American media corporations have decided are what girls and women want — I still want to be included in that cohort. If we insist, as the most basic of pro-trans adages say, that trans women are women, then how come women like me never seem to be in the conversation when these shows, even the queer ones, are created? If media that’s traditionally targeted at women, whether they are queer or not, isn’t making a space for the girls like me, then where exactly are we expected to look for entertainment that keeps us in mind?
At the end of the day, it seems like we have to be the ones to make our own trash, but I’m not convinced that there are many avenues for trans femme media that aims only to entertain. I’m grateful for the existence of Pose or the many trans writers I know who are telling inventive and artistically daring narratives in fiction, but what trans narratives get released and marketed to the mainstream really seems to come down to having the right ally to champion your work or perceived palatability for a cis audience. There’s apparently little room there for mass market trans trash.
It’s partly why I always find myself returning to Kim Petras for my hot girl walks or suffering woman runs. Even though a voice in the back of my head reminds me there are plenty of trans music artists who aren’t working with industry predators like Dr. Luke, Slut Pop was still one of my most streamed albums of 2022. I love that Petras not only releases incredibly catchy dance pop, but that so much of it is unabashedly sexual and risqué. Sure, you could call it vapid, but if we are going to cheer on songs that reclaim cis women’s sexuality, I sure as hell am going to be here for my trans bangers about boobs, blowjobs, and BDSM.
I know when the existence of trans people is under attack throughout the country, the need for trashy trans media may seem like a low priority issue. I could even understand members of the community arguing that media centering sloppy trans women making bad choices maybe isn’t the best content to pump into the cultural ether right now. But when things are awful and I’ve done everything in my power to fight and scream for our rights, I sometimes want to stuff my face filled with microwave popcorn and binge watch hours and hours of trans femme melodrama.